Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Nerd Woman Scorned

So, as I may have mentioned before, I'm exceedingly psyched for Game of Thrones, the HBO series premiering tonight, based on George R. R. Martin's fantasy books known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire. (Yeah, I'm glad they changed the name.) But with its imminent arrival, a recurring phenomenon has returned to the web: the cultural equivalent of the nerds vs. jocks conflict that seems to erupt whenever a somewhat esoteric geek property threatens to get some mainstream attention.

TV/Culture blogger Myles McNutt summarizes a lot of the debate here--he's concerned primarily with the gender aspects, but there's the larger issue of the fact that when critics give a negative review to an adaptation of a book or a comic with a passionate, geeky fanbase, they almost always find themselves under attack by the more hardcore members of said fanbase, even though the critics have seen the show or movie and the fans haven't. Sometimes the criticism of the criticism is valid, sometimes it degenerates into "but in the original..." (which tends to be beside the point--the critic is reviewing the adaptation, not the original work), and sometimes it gets a bit ugly, with the fans attempting armchair psychology on the critics, grasping around for reasons to dismiss their opinions, or just flat-out resorting to personal attacks.

When I read McNutt's essay, I agreed with him in theory, though I had to admit I thought Martin's fanbase had actually been pretty well-behaved, and that the criticism of the show had, in fact, been pretty shallow and poorly written, apart from being negative. (To be fair, McNutt points to io9's article as a rather noxious example of fanboy hype that's every bit as superficial.)

Turns out that was nothing. A few days after McNutt's article, this already infamous review by Ginia Bellafonte appeared in the New York Times, and the controversy re-erupted both on the gendered and "nerds vs. mainstream" front. If you were looking for a better example of how geeks feel bullied by mainstream culture, you couldn't have invented a more perfect one. That article is essentially a more eloquent version of the kind of contempt a nerd might have received from one of the popular girls in seventh grade. What's sort of perfect, though, is the way Bellafonte hung herself with her own petard by devoting so much of her "review" (far more than was spent on trivialities like analyzing the acting, production values, or story) to flatly stating that women were going to flee screaming from this show (and stopping just short of claiming that the exclusively male people who might enjoy this show will never know a woman's touch). The people who respond furiously to articles like this are often...not the kind of folks you want springing to your defense, and indeed might have proved some of her points about the social ineptitude of the show's fans, but by framing it the way she did, Bellafonte of course attracted an array of female nerds who were more than happy to inform her just how deeply up her own ass her head was located. There are too many responses to link to, really, though Annalee Newitz's clever comeback is particularly worth a read, and Matt Zoller Seitz's deconstruction is probably the most effective.

So, basically, while I'm often a little embarrassed by how brittle some of the fandoms to which I belong can be (Hi, Browncoats!), this is one example in which I can unhesitatingly side with the nerds. You done good, folks.

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